Plain – Just Like Granny

"Granny" Daisy Moses

We know her as Granny Clampett, the feisty and wise matriarch of “The Beverly Hillbillies.” The character’s name was really Daisy Moses, and I assume she was the widowed Jed Clampett’s mother-in-law. Granny was played by veteran radio comedienne Irene Ryan, who died in 1973.

Ellie Mae, Jed, Granny, Jethro

Granny wore long calico dresses and aprons. She glared at the troubling world over a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles. She wore boots, and when she went to bed, she wore a nightcap.

She could cook possum stew and fire up a batch of moonshine or spring tonic. She reigned over the kitchenlike an empress holding court. She took no sass from no young’uns.

I want to be like Granny. And I seem to be going in that direction. What I loved about Granny was that she knew things – how to cook, how to sew, how to make herbal medicines and heal wounds.

And I wonder if you remember this episode:

Granny and Pearl

Granny is churning butter while Pearl does some spring cleaning. (Pearl was “cousin” somehow; and appeared irregularly to visit her son, Jethro Bodine, who lived with the Clampetts.)

But these are also Granny’s household items:

antiques collector and Granny's loom

Yes, that is a floor loom – I don’t recall why it is out in the driveway for this episode. Granny must have been working on some rugs or dish towels while enjoying the California sunshine.

Granny's spinning wheel

I’m not sure what Ellie Mae is doing because she certainly isn’t spinning – it looks like a flax wheel (there’s a distaff) but she doesn’t have any fibre. This scene is one of the many where Jethro and Ellie Mae wonder where the music is coming from – it’s the door bell. Unsophisticated mountaineers, they have never heard of a door bell! Maybe back in Hogjowl Tennessee vistors just yodel from the front porch. (There were times that the “hillbilly” jokes were a little lame.) Ellie Mae will explain to the antiques collector that the wheel, in fact, belongs to Granny. The whole gist of the “comedy” in this episode is that someone wants to collect Granny’s everyday household tools as decorative antiques.

While the hillbilly premise made for some rather pretentious comedy (the doorbell gag, the billiards table used as a dining table, Jed continuing to drive the old Model A truck) the final say would be that the rhubarbs from the Ozarks were, in many ways, smarter and more savvy than the big city bankers and Hollywood stars. I honestly don’t understand why the Clampetts went to Beverly Hills – maybe it was explained in an early episode – but I would think that if hill people did come into a lot of money, they were more likely to move to Nashville or Mobile. I suppose there isn’t any logical explanation for 1960s comedy, though.

But the Clampetts made a big impression on America. And I’ve grown up to be Granny rather than Ellie Mae.

Plain Influences – At Home

My parents liked the style of decor known as “Early American.” They had some really good furniture that they purchased through my grandfather, built in Dover-Foxcroft, Maine, and based on Colonial and Early American design.

Moosehead chairs and cabinetmaker

The Moosehead factory was at 97 East Main Street, and my grandparents lived at 94 Summer Street. Dover-Foxcroft is in the “Yankee” part of Maine, south of Mount Katahdin. I grew up north of the mountain, in Caribou, Aroostook County, which is more Canadian.

The Moosehead furniture my parents purchased almost fifty years ago is now at my sister’s house in Bangor, on its third generation of use – and was sold by another generation before that.  I guess it is on its way to heirloom status.

Royal China, "Bucks County"

My parents didn’t hang onto this though, and it is too bad, because I still like these patterns and they are now quite collectable. The one with the yellow background is called Bucks County, and is a rather loose interpretation of Pennsylvania Dutch style. I believe it was sold by the piece at Woolworth’s, one of our local chain department stores. Woolworth’s was one of the old”Five and Dime” stores where one could buy glassware, socks, toys, kitchen items, and sewing notions. My paternal grandmother worked down the street at J.C. Penney’s, a clothier who also had mail order items. My maternal grandmother worked for a time at another five and dime, Newbury’s, in Dover-Foxcroft. She also worked for the grocery stores from time to time, including as a butcher. A&P stores carried this pattern of dishes as a premium.

Royal China, "Colonial Homestead"

Some of it may have been gifts from my grandmother. I had a couple of pieces I bought in an antique shop, but passed them along when we were downsizing the household.  “Colonial Homestead” has images of different domestic scenes of early life in New England.

The tilt-top table was still popular in New England homes into the twentieth century; I remember examples in older homes. Here it is shown as a chair; if one needed an extra dining table, the back swung down.

This spinning wheel looks very much like the one I own, built around 1880.

I don’t know if the artist who designed this series went to a colonial museum to draft the illustrations, but I suspect he did. He may have gone to Historic Deerfield, a “village” of 11 authentic Colonial houses. (

Ashley House, Deerfield

Plimouth Plantation is another source for very early Colonial material. ( We visited Plimouth Plantation and the Mayflower when I was a child, and it was very exciting for me.

Living history at Plimouth, ca. 1627

Some of my ancestors were in the Massachusetts Bay Colony by the 1640s, although they were not Puritans (“Pilgrims”). They may have lived much as the settlers at Plimouth did.

I will write more on these topics soon; let me know if you have questions or topics to include.

Plain Dress – Children

Amish children, Lancaster County, old postcard

All the Old Order children I have met dressed Plain. There didn’t seem to be any question about it; they dressed much like their parents, and if anything, their clothes are simpler and plainer. Little girls usually wear a chemise type dress with sleeves, and a overall kind of apron that buttons in the back. Little boys wear pants with suspenders and button front shirts. Infants of both genders wear a longish dress with diapers until they are toilet-trained, which seems to be at an earlier age than Englisch children.  When you are just weary with washing cloth diapers, you are likely to push the toiletting much earlier, especially if you have another in diapers and one more on the way! Most children have the muscle control necessary by two, at the latest; very few won’t by three. It might even be four or five for all night bladder control, but as my family pediatrician used to say, “They never start school in diapers.” I honestly don’t know why parents want to keep buying disposable diapers. They are expensive and a nuisance to dispose! I know that if you don’t have your own washer, it is quite a chore to haul buckets of diapers to a laundry. Still, women did them by hand for many generations.

Amish child's dress and apron ca.1900

Amish girls still wear garments much like these. This outfit was for offer on eBay; the seller’s reserve wasn’t met, so it may still be available. I think he was hoping to get upward of $100 US. Perhaps someone will want this for a collection. But since the style and method of construction is pretty much the same as today, I don’t see anyone spending much for it. Old clothes only have real value when they are connected with a famous person or event. Contrary to what most people think, museums don’t purchase much unless it has an important history and is directly related to the rest of their collection. They are often the sellers of items that are no longer pertinent to their focus, or are being replaced by better examples. Archival storage space is expensive, and for textiles in particular, as they must be held within a certain temperature and humidity range, while being housed in containers that are acid-free and insect proof.

The dress without the apron

I would think that examples of Amish clothing from this time would be rare, as clothes would be handed on to another sibling or cousin, and eventually would end up as rags or patches. I think this cornflower blue quite pretty, but I suspect the original colour was a deeper indigo.

Amish child's dress and pinafore

This is a more recent example, but made of the same basic design.

Winter outerwear, Lancaster County

Both boys and girls wear simple short jackets in winter in Lancaster County. The young man here is wearing a scaled down version of Pa’s black felt hat. Girls might wear black bonnets over their prayer kapps, or a black wool scarf tied kerchief fashion under the chin. This group, apparently siblings, have bright scarves at their necks. They seem to be without mittens or gloves, though.

Englisch barn boots of the black rubber pull-on type seem to be in common use now among Plain people in winter, with socks inside for warmth. Lace-up boots are so cute on little children, but I can imagine when Mama has to get five young children into boots every morning, it could be quite a struggle. I’ve noticed that Old Order children often wear flip-flop sandals in summer and dark or white running shoes the rest of the year. Young men in their teen years wear dark running shoes or workboots, while young women and girls wear Keds in all but the coldest months.

Bright sunbonnets are standard among small girls – parents allow a bit of freedom of choice in the fabric for the summer bonnet, and even older women will wear quite a colourful floral print sunbonnet on weekdays. Bonnets are good sense for children’; they protect the face, neck and the tender scalp of children prone to burn, and there is no risk of adverse reactions as there is to sunscreen. They stay on better than sunhats. Little boys wear wear straw hats much like their fathers. They may be anchored on the youngest with a bit of elastic.

I would say that Plain parents, even if not Amish or Mennonite, should expect their children to dress Plain. The child is obedient to the parent until independent. It might be a struggle to get teenagers who go to public schools to honour this, but I wouldn’t allow much dissension in my own house. (It isn’t an issue, since all the children were away from home when we became intentionally Plain.) I would expect little girls to cover by the age of eight unless parents don’t expect that until baptism or reception as an adult in the church.

Plain dressed families have so many advantages – the clothes do not go out of style, and are usually handmade and sturdier than factory made clothes. There is no question about status or fashion. There is no temptation to push the limits on how mature or “sexy” the clothes make the child. (Although I have heard of Amish girls asking if they can wear a cape dress and adult covering at a younger age than their older sisters, so they can look more mature. It’s rather like my wanting lipstick and pantyhose at twelve, emulating my older cousins.)

Lancaster County, vintage postcard

Note that here, all the children but one are barefoot! The little boy looks as if he has been dressed up for an occasion; this may be a family setting out for church or market. Perhaps the oldest girl has another place to visit or attend, and she put on shoes and hose.

Popular Quakers

Quaker woman, ambrotype 1860s

This is what Quaker women looked like late in the nineteenth century.  Plain Quakers were still part of the American social and cultural landscape, and were high profile as a community. We are all familiar with the image of William Penn on the cereal box. Quakers stood for purity, honesty, and a good product. They held a place in popular imagination much as the Amish do today.

Quaker Coffee illustration

She’s a lovely lass, isn’t she?  Quaker girls were once popular advertising images. They made products look wholesome. They apparently also had some kind of romantic appeal.

From "A Quaker Down in Quaker Town"

 It was a song popular in 1916 – “There’s A Quaker Down in Quaker Town.” The lyrics are the usual uninspired drivel of popular sheet music of that era – “Old William Penn, please pardon me/One of your sons I want to be/You love your Quakers and I love one too/That’s why I’m strong for you.” The backstory is that this Broadway composer/singer/actor has fallen in love with a sweet girl in Philadelphia, and he’ll have to convert in order to woo her. The Quaker in popular imagination exemplified sweet innoncence and natural beauty.  Although those heels are pretty hot stuff. I had a pair of shoes like that about twenty years ago.

We think of the “Quaker” on the oatmeal label as The Quaker of Quaker Oats, which wasn’t started by Quakers. Other Quaker characters were part of the marketing strategy.

"Quaker babies" promotional card 1890s

William Penn doesn’t appear just on the oatmeal drumbox either, and I could be sure that Quakers really didn’t associate the founder of Pennsylvania with this product.

Old Quaker Whiskey bottle

Manufactured by Schenley Distillers, makers of many proprietary brands of rotgut,I doubt if this was marketed to (mostly) teetotalling Quakers. Was the Pennesque character supposed to represent purity?

A hundred plus years later, we see the Amish used in the same marketing strategy. They represent a past age, a time of innocence. We assume that their reputation for honesty and simple living is reflected in products associated with them. We expect to see value for our money from Amish products, which was probably part of the marketing strategy behind the “Quaker” products. Quality, purity, honesty, value.

And quaint sells. Nostalgia sells, as if we could recapture lost innocence and a simple way of life by purchasing a product; as if we can really identify with people who have chosen a way of life based on the Bible merely by picking the right label.

Plain Influences – Laura Ingalls Wilder

First edition, 1935

I read the Laura Ingalls Wilder series of books based on her childhood and young married life when I was about ten years old. A friend had them. Oddly, I don’t think my mother had read them when she was a girl, although they would have been contemporaneous with her childhood. I wished my parents would move West, build a log cabin, and settle down in the Big Woods (which I much prefered to the prairie.)

We must be into the fourth generation to read these wonderful books. My grandson would be the right age for them, although most boys even today would see them as “girls'” books, which might be one reason women have been more influenced by them than men.

the Banks of Plum Creek, Hebrew edition

The books have been translated into many languages, and the television show was very popular in Europe for years. While I found many images from the series, most of them seem to be under copyright, and I didn’t want to steal anyone’s intellectual property. I did find this trading card, though, from what was probably a publicity still. It is in Swedish.

yes, it says little house on the prairie

 While the Ingalls family was not Plain, they lived a very basic life for many years, as they moved West and finally settled. They were one of many families leaving the Eastern states, looking to stake a claim on some farmland. They were real homesteaders, taking advantage of the Homestead Act first passed in 1862 (after the South seceded and could no longer block its passage). The Homestead Act was intended to let people without capital start a farm, partly to keep Southern plantations from expanding West and enlarging the number of slave-owning territories, and to populate the wild lands recently cleared of Native Americans, who were being pushed onto reservation land, mostly poor quality, near-desert public holdings. Although only 40% of the homesteaders ever filed for their deed, eventually 10% of the land in the United States was claimed under the Homestead Acts. The last claim was, I believe, in 1976, in Alaska, and the deed filed in 1988. (Wikipedia article was the source for most of this information.)

It’s one of the reasons I have trouble with the word “homesteading” for living off the grid. It’s not just that one can’t file a homestead claim, but that the intention of the Homestead Act, in part, was genocide by overcrowding and starvation. (Infected blankets from Civil War hospitals were sent to the reservations to spread smallpox. That was deliberate.) The Ingalls family had some encounters with their Native American neighbours, and while those contacts were nonviolent, the family was wary of the natives. Epidemic, lack of supplies and bitter cold were their real enemies, and it is a tribute to Pa Ingall’s skills and resourcefulness, and Ma’s good management, that they survived.

I didn’t watch much of the television series. I can’t say how authentic they kept details, but the clothing and houses seemed  to be in keeping with the era. (I didn’t like it that Michael Landon never grow Pa’s legendary beard.) I was certainly fond of the long dresses, aprons and sunbonnets the Ingalls girls wore, though.

Plain Dressed Men

Someone asked recently how men can dress Plain, as to be distinguished from some guy in jeans and a blue shirt. Plain as a conviction of a Christian witness is a powerful statement. Plain attire is as much an identiification factor as a Franciscan’s brown robe or a priest’s white collar. I’ve found some images to help those who are Plain outside traditional Plain communities.

Mennonite, 1947

The flat black hat (or flat straw hat) is associated with Plain orders. The wide brimmed hat is practical and distinctive. This older man is wearing a placket shirt and a black jacket without lapels. His square beard and lack of mustache indicate that he is Anabaptist and married (or widowed). Why the lack of mustache? Either because the mustache was associated with military rank, or to indicate the setting aside of vanity. My husband has a full beard and mustache, because he finds shaving to be very difficult with his reduced vision, but he prefers the “peace” or “brethren” beard. Some Anabaptist groups have men start their beard when they married, and a few others when they are baptized.

Amish men at barn raising

This old postcard shows young men working at a barn raising. They are wearing “broadfalls” – old-fashioned button fly trousers – with suspenders. I’ve noticed that Amish and Mennonite men have their suspender buttons sewn outside the waist band, the opposite of what I was taught by my tailoring grandmothers, that suspender (or braces) buttons go inside the waist band. They are wearing long-sleeved shirts of the basic Oxford type, with the sleeves rolled up. Most Plain men now wear blue jeans or basic dress cut trousers in a  dark colour. A few groups continue to wear broadfalls.

I would guess these men were photographed at a mud sale, or spring auction. They are more formally dressed in mutze (jacket), dark trousers and the black flat hat. Plain men do not wear neckties or belts, as both are considered indicators of fashion. Plain men used to wear just black boots, but I’ve noticed a number of even older men have taken to wearing workboots, Oxfords, and running shoes, all for practicality. My husband wears workboots, casual Oxfords, or plain black dress oxfords. He used to wear a pair of all black running shoes at work, since he was on his feet all day.

I made this plain black vest, Nicholas’s “Sunday meeting” attire, worn with a white banded collar shirt and black jeans.